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Sage Wisdom

"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."

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January 27, 2011 | Improvisation: Ensemble Hatching

We frequently discuss the ingredients of improvisation at the personal or individual level. The mechanics of scales and arpeggios, rhythmic variation, story arc, and harmonic propriety, but in the last seven years, we've not explored improvisation within the context of the ensemble. What we do to listen to and build off other players in our group is crucial to the aesthetic impact we create for our audience. "Playing well with others" is all about how we listen and respond. Improvisation is creativity, but even more so, when firing on all cylinders, it's adaptation.

Nature creates. We merely adapt.


Comedian/actress Michelle James recently gave a talk at a TED conference and elaborates on this profoundly. Strangely enough, the context is of her presentation is using improvisational techniques of her comedy troupe and plugging these strategies into government and the corporate. Still her principles serve the jazz ensemble well, too.

As you listen to her video embedded below, grasp her three points:

Yes, and... (Accept everything and build of the positive aspects of the suggestion.) Someone plays a sequence of note, and nothing is wrong. All is merely a starting point for someone to build from.

Make everyone else look good. (Everything is considered an "offer." Justify. State why it's awesome.) Make effort to restate an idea from the previous improviser, adjust dynamics while accompanying to make the soloist sound good, and for heaven's sake, don't noodle or be a distraction.

Serve the good of the whole. (Not just sacrificing, but giving for the benefit of everyone.) You have your "moment," but there's no bigger turnoff than arrogant self-indulgence. Don't show off at the expense of the rest of the group. If the other players aren't as good as you are, dazzle the audience with your humility. Don't grandstand.

In all three of these principles, you have to be "present," aware of what everyone else is doing.

And finally, in setting the stage; make it safe. Create an environment in which the unknown is your new best friend.

Enjoy video: Michelle James: Improvisation for Cultivating Sustainable Creativity

Complements of you...
Plays Well With Others...
Course Corrections
A common mistake. Clacky, clacky...
Playing with a drummer

Posted by Ted at 12:11 PM

January 20, 2011 | Accidental Indicators

We've been offering a lot of discussion surrounding the topic of 'ii V7 I' chord progressions, and this almost always includes the topic of Tonal Centers. In most common folk songs, you rarely leave a key, sometimes the whole verse of the B part of the song departs to a 4th higher, and a minor song temporarily goes to its relative major, but for the most part, we just stay put harmonically.

accidentals.jpgIt's a completely different story in jazz. We can start off in one key, take a few measures detouring into another, maybe even a third and fourth key, and that's just the A section of the song. We call these Tonal Centers, because even though in notation we don't typically indicate the small changes in keys, we certainly do aurally, and of course, in the vertical harmonic structure. It helps us immensely in our improvising to be aware of these shifts, and even though the analysis can be subjective, you can adapt your melodic (linear) vocabulary to the chord structure. You're playing along in the key of Bb major, and a temporary key change to Eb will tell you it's time to use Ab instead of A natural. It also makes you more efficient in conveying the harmonic meat of the key of Eb, the 3rds and 7ths (G and A).

If we want help identifying these shifts, our ears will always be the best, but we can also look visually at notational deviations in print. Reviewing a Tips article we did in September of 2007, Part 2 of our Analysis and Microscopes series, we examined occular clues, or Accidental Indicators, simply raised notes and lowered notes.

Raised Note: (Sharp, natural in a flat key)
A sharp sign '#' will sometimes just be part of a chromatic passing tone, but the majority of the time it's an indicator we are leaving the key. It becomes the 7th scale degree or Leading tone. In the key of Bb, an E natural would hint at a move to the key of F major, because 1.) it's not in the key of Bb, and 2.) E is the 7th scale degree of the key of F major

Lowered note: (Flat, natural in a sharp key)
By the same token the note Ab in the key of Bb (notated with a 'b') might be telling you it is the 4th scale degree of the new key of Eb. First, it's not in the key of Bb, and second, it generates the strong harmonic pull of the 4th scale degree to the 3rd (Ab to G, in the key of Eb). This is a strong harmonic and melodic gravitational pull.


These indicators aren't foolproof, but they are a strong hint. If nothing else, a printed accidental notifies you visually that not only that note is changing but the chord structure as well. Of course if you're reading a fake book with chords above, this can be confirmed there, too.

Jazz Primer: Harmonic Function
Moving Forward; Melodic Progression
Tonal Centers: a hand up from Ralph Patt
'Playing musically: Part 2, play the chords
Analysis: Macroscopes and Microscopes Part 2

Posted by Ted at 1:29 PM

January 13, 2011 | The Jazz Brain; Improv

The TED conference videos are a fascinating resource of current information on technologies and educational philosophies. We were most intrigued by a recent January entry by surgeon Dr. Charles Limb on the impact of improvisation on the brain (or vice versa). Scanning live brain activity of a musician with an MRI reveals curious details on the electrical/blood processes in specific regions while playing memorized passages as compared to improvisational activity. Himself an amateur jazz musician, he even shows video footage of an experiment while "trading fours" with another musician.


What we found striking was the notion that certain parts of the brain become inactive in the heat of maximum heightened creativity. The area that monitors control and inhibition is passive while the region that is expressive and autobiographical increases in activity. This implies that we need to be able to "let loose" cognitively, not only losing our normal conscious inhibitions, but relinquishing control to these creative areas.

Perhaps this is why some musicians actually drool when they play...

We think the analytical approach to jazz, looking under the hood in music theory and mastery of scales is important. That aside, the next step is to be able to transcend the cerebral and make it a motor, "turn off the brain" process. As they say, "Learn your scales so well that you forget them." The cognition needs to get buried and meld with the subliminal.

FFcP.gifLearn your FFcPs, your 'ii V7 I's, turnarounds, and your scales, but then go to the next level by making them automatic. That's when creativity can truly take over.

View video link: Charles Limb: Your brain on improv

Notes on your fretboard. Coming out of nowhere?
Starting off
Calisthenics and mandolins

Posted by Ted at 7:04 AM

January 6, 2011 | The 'ii V7 I' Chord Progression Pt. 2 with Don Julin

More from newly hired JazzMando staff writer and Traverse City, Michigan mandolin master, Don Julin. Don explores the concept of unresolved tonal centers in this week's Tips and Tricks entry.


Spot the 'ii V7 I'

In my last installment, I demonstrated how the 'ii V7 I' chord progression was a common way to modulate from one key to another. The 'ii V7 I' is also about tension and resolve. During the first half of the progression there is mystery, drama, suspense, a feeling of movement. When you reach the I chord there is a feeling of resolve. Many times in jazz we see the 'ii V7' without the following I chord. This is still considered a modulation but without the resolve of the tonic. So if we are playing a tune and encounter the chords Cm7/F7 we have in fact modulated to Bb but we are at suspense, drama part of the progression. From there, the next chords might be Fm7/Bb7 which would indicate moving to the key of Eb.

Let's take two standard jazz compositions and locate all of the unresolved 'ii V7' and resolved 'ii V7 I' cadences. By doing this we can get a better understanding of what key or keys we are actually going through.

First let's take a look at "Just Friends." A 32 bar vocal standard in the key of G. It begins on the IV chord (Cmaj7) and works it's way through a series of unresolved /ii/V7/ cadences in the keys of Bb (Cm7/F7), Ab (Bbm7/Eb7), and G (Am7/D7), resolving one time using a complete 'ii V7 I' in G (Am7/D7/Gmaj7). The A7 chord appears twice in this song functioning as a Secondary Dominant or a V of V. So the major key we are in when the A7 is being played is D. There is one more 'ii V7' used as a turnaround (Dm7/G7) in the last bar. So In order to improvise well in this tune we need to be able identify the 'ii V7 I' cadences, and be fluent in G, Bb, Ab, D, and C.

Click image to print PDF: Just Friends
Just Friends

Next let's take a look at the Miles Davis composition "Tune Up." This is a 16 bar tune that is primarily thought of as an improvisational piece. This composition is pretty straight forward in that the first three 'ii V7 I' cadences resolve and are easy to spot. The first four bars consist of a 'ii V7 I' in D. (Em7/A7/Dmaj7) The next 4 bars modulate down one whole step by way of a 'ii V7 I' in C. (Dm7/G7/Cmaj7) The third line modulates down one more step with a 'ii V7 I' in Bb. (Cm7/F7/Bbmaj7) The last four bars of this piece are made up of a 'ii V7' in D followed by a measure of Bbmaj7 and a one bar turnaround comprised of a quick 'ii V7' in D.

Click image to print PDF: Tune Up
Tune Up

I believe that having an understanding of, and being able to quickly recognize 'ii V7 I' chord progressions is an essential skill of the jazz musician.

Contact Don at
Don Julin's free lessons on YouTube

The 'ii V7 I' Chord Progression Pt. 1
Understanding the 'ii V7 I': Tonal Micro-centers
Middle ground; reading jazz fake books
'Jazz Primer: Harmonic Function
Secondary Dominants

Posted by Ted at 8:58 AM

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